“Justice Within” – Shabbat Shoftim, Friday, September 9, 2016

This has turned out to be a long, hot summer. The unrelenting heat and humidity seem to have made people more cranky than usual. The tenor of public discourse, within the presidential campaign and outside of it, has been personal and ugly. The effort to disenfranchise the poor, the young, the old, and people of color is ongoing. Zika is spreading. Gays have been targeted. Women have been targeted. Jews have been targeted. And Sunday will mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, reminding us all that Americans, too, remain a target.

All of this is happening in a constant and exhausting whirlwind around us, just at the time when we Jews are preparing to delve into our period of reflection, penitence, and teshuvah. And maybe that’s more than coincidence.

We’re now in the month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah. Tonight is the first time, as a congregation, when we hear some high holy day melodies, and when we sing songs and offer prayers asking for God’s mercy. We are preparing to stand before God during the Days of Awe. We know we will have to stand before each other as well. But before we can do any of that, we need to look in the mirror and really take stock of ourselves.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the topics that underlie all of the turmoil in the world: Fairness. Transparency. Mutual respect. And, above all, justice. Justice in the courtroom and in our streets. Justice at home and at work.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the Torah tells us in one of its most famous and enigmatic passages. Justice, justice, shall you pursue.

We usually translate this doubled phrase to mean that we must seek peace near to home and pursue it from afar. That puts a great responsibility on us to set ourselves to the task of assuring fair treatment of the poor, the young, the old, people of color, women, gays, and fellow Jews.

After all, the Rabbis of the Mishnah declared:

“The sword comes to the world on account of delay in justice, on account of subversion of justice, and on account of those who interpret the Torah not in keeping with accepted traditions.”

But my colleague, Rabbi Richard Address, has suggested that we read these words in the days leading to Rosh Hashanah because they also carry another meaning: seek peace near to home, and pursue it even closer.

We are asked, wrote Rabbi Address this week, “to pursue justice in the world at large” – what we call tikkun olam. But, he wrote, “perhaps this verse can also be seen as a command to pursue justice within our own self . . . what some call tikkun ha’nefesh, the care and repair of our own self.”

And lest you think that sounds selfish in the context of pursuing justice, consider this. How in the world can we expect to make things better for others when we don’t feel right about ourselves?

Think about the last year and the choices you made. Were you uncomfortable? Did you feel pressured? Did you go out of your way to please a spouse, a parent, a child, or a boss, but do it in a way that went against your better judgment? Or did you cut corners, knowing the task was not being done properly but simply lose interest when fatigue set in? Did you let somebody else clean up a mess you made – literally or figuratively? Did you lose your temper with someone who did not deserve the brunt of your frustration? Really think about this carefully. If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s time to work on yourself first, before you can do right for others.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice shall you pursue near to home. Justice shall you pursue even closer.

Maybe this means making hard choices about commitments – saying no when you’d like to say yes, when everybody else is used to you saying yes. Maybe this means asking for help, or for a little extra time, when you’re tired or frustrated. Maybe it means committing to physical exercise you never seem to make time for, or the healthier meals you keep promising yourself you’ll start preparing.

Maybe it means setting ground rules and boundaries for how you let other people treat you – how late you answer the phone, how often you interrupt family time.

Maybe it means realizing that it’s not really selfish when you sometimes put yourself first. Because you can’t be your best for others when you’re not feeling right about yourself.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice shall you pursue near to home. Justice shall you pursue even closer.

Rabbi Address also reminds us that sometimes we are not free in our choices, and that leads to regret. Sometimes we let people influence our behavior in ways we know are not right. Is it easier to go with the flow? Not to speak up when a co-worker is being mistreated? Not to make waves when a child is being bullied by peers? Not to voice our political opinions when they might go against what our friends think? Probably. But if we know in our kishkes that we’re not doing the right thing, we need to think about the price of conforming to somebody else’s expectations.

After laying out the ethical guidelines for pursuing justice, the Torah then warns us about setting a king over us, just like everybody else has. The Torah’s immediate concern is that a king will become haughty, aloof, or self-absorbed, forgetting that he, too, must follow God’s mitzvot and cannot be above the law. “When he is seated on his royal throne,” declares God, “he shall have a copy of this teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life . . thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.”

But I think the underlying concern is that the people will think the king will do everything for them, and abrogate their own responsibility to create a community of justice and fairness. That they will neglect the obligations of everyday people to one another.

The pursuit of justice by every individual, says the Torah, is the only way that the nation as a whole will thrive in the Promised Land.

That pursuit of justice must begin within before it can be applied without.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as the prophet Zechariah said: “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates.”  These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established.

And the establishment of peace is, after all, the ultimate goal of both tikkun ha-nefesh and tikkun olam.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice must we pursue near to home. Justice must we pursue even closer.

Kein yehi ratson. As we approach our days of Awe, let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2016 Rabbi Audrey Korotkin


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